By Amy Clarke, Chief Impact Officer
Fear. At one time or another in our lives we will be partially or completely paralysed by it. It’s a primeval instinct that kicks in when we feel threatened – emotionally or physically – and is rooted in human evolution. Fear in and of itself is a necessary function; it is a legitimate response based on our desire to survive. It is both cerebral and physical. Fear can, left unchecked and uninterrogated, become a straitjacket of behaviours from which there is little hope of escape. Fear can lead us to do things that appear irrational, short-termist and counterproductive, especially given how far humanity has evolved and the nature of the perceived threats we face today. What was developed as a self defence mechanism in a time of heightened physical threat, has not evolved as much as society has, and our collective ability to interrogate it even less so. Fear is an integral part of life, and as such, it is important that we understand it and learn how to work with it. Now more than ever, it seems important that we have this discussion. We must learn to listen to its voice and sit in dialogue with it, but also have the confidence to not always allow it a vote in the decisions that we make.
The last few weeks have shown us on an unprecedented and global scale how fragile our existence is. COVID-19 has shown us socially, physically, emotionally, economically, the systemic weaknesses in our communities and our economies and made real for us the nature of the relationship we have with the ecological fabric we inhabit. It has been and will continue to be an unsettling time for us all. But what COVID-19 has also shown us is how we are able to respond immediately to threats that we can’t see, can’t hear, and can’t touch. Cognitive science teaches us that the human brain often struggles to assimilate threats that are non-human and pervade over time. COVID-19 is a non-human threat but it has been rapid and has, as a result, triggered a self defence mechanism in many of us. By contrast, the climate crisis is also a non-human threat but is occurring over a longer period of time and, as a result, is not triggering our self defence mechanism as broadly as COVID-19 has. Now, this is a grossly oversimplified and reductive view of cognitive science, but it helps us understand, to some extent, why we react in one way to one thing, and another way to something else that presents as significant a threat, if not greater. In one situation fear kicks in and we act. In another, fear doesn’t kick in, so we don’t.
So, is the battle to tackle any crisis as much in our heads as it is in the solutions that may already prevail? Let us look again at the climate crisis as an example of a crisis. Professor Robert Gifford at the University of Victoria in Canada has authored many studies on our brain’s difficulty in grasping climate change as a threat. As a specialist in Psychology and Environmental Studies he refers to these barriers as ‘dragons of inaction’. They include factors such as comparisons with other people/countries and any perceived inequity (the “why should we change if they won’t?” conundrum); limited understanding of or general ignorance of the problem; the perceived (rather than actual) risks of changing our behaviour; and personal or cultural ideologies or worldviews that may lead to inaction. Many of these dragons of inaction are rooted in fear; the fear of standing out, the fear of not knowing what to do, the fear of a loss of identity, the fear of the outcomes. Other emotions also come in to play; guilt, despair, doubt, grief and anger. Anger, like fear, however can be a positive force for behaviour change when harnessed correctly. Many of these emotions apply across multiple different crisis scenarios, we’re not just talking about the climate crisis here. When we interrogate the underlying behaviours that led to what appears to be the recent global stockpiling of loo roll, as an example, we can see fear at play. As Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos at UCL in London explains “In public health issues we have no idea about the time or intensity and we get messages on a daily basis that we should go into panic mode [such] that we buy into more than we need to. It’s our only tool of control”. This is exacerbated by the fact that loo roll is large and visible in supermarket shelves so when supplies start to dwindle it becomes obvious and triggers consumers to overbuy in case supplies run out. There is embedded in this a possible fear that hygiene standards will fall and disease will increase, especially in developed economies where these messages have been drummed into us. There is a perceived safety and security in having loo roll.
So, how do we harness fear, anger, despair, hopelessness, etc and get people to engage with the problem and act? Scientists love a good formula. Climate psychologists are no exception and they argue for a simple I=tpn approach when devising policies and products; I being the Impact of behavioural change that is equal to its Technical potential to fix the problem, times the behavioural Plasticity required to comply with it, times the Number of people who will change behaviours. The beauty with this formula is that it is applicable to multiple different issues we face, not just climate. Let’s take sustainable and impact investing as an example. Finance is a tool through which we can access and deploy most of the solutions we need in the face of the many crises we face as a global community. Whether it’s the climate crisis, rising levels of inequality, access to healthcare and education, waste, etc finance is an incredibly powerful tool. Therefore, the technical potential for finance to fix these problems is significant. It’s the biggest technical fix we have because it provides the ‘fuel’ we need to deploy the solutions. The behavioural plasticity required to change how money behaves is also significant when we all remember that every single pound or dollar we have is a vote for what we believe in and we do love to spend so… What we buy and what we invest in signals what we value. The number of us who can do this is profound when you consider EVERY pound and dollar becomes a ripple of change and millions if not billions of us have the capacity to make those choices. The collective impact is then huge.
When we understand how fear and anger play out to create a lack of action or even denial, we can create policies, products and movements that recognise our fear but lead us to quickly and orderly respond (without hoarding the loo roll on the way out). It’s the Nudge Theory 101. Subtle shifts in policies and product that don’t penalise but that reward behaviour shift lead to systemic impact. Even in times of great crises. We’ve seen some of this in the emergency budgets the UK Chancellor has been deploying to tackle the human health and economic impacts of COVID-19. By understanding what is creating the fear, the government has put in place some economic safety nets to prevent panic and encourage the behaviours we currently need. Whilst these may not be the subtle shifts the Nudge Theory advocates for, in times of crisis we often need large scale policy responses that encourage the right behaviours. Nudges can provide the necessary impetus to tackle many of the “dragons of inaction” Gifford outlines. When people feel safe and secure, changes in behaviour become more possible. The trick is in ensuring that safety and security are appreciated for what they are – safety nets to encourage the right behaviour, rather than the status quo (in other words, everything is fine, you don’t need to do anything).
This is why the future must be about Nudges, large and small, that help us sit with fear and anger but which drive us to respond in a healthy and appropriate fashion. And what is one of the biggest Nudges we have? Sustainable and impact investing. We could consider it the mother of all Nudges. Investing in the businesses that are future proofing their operations and products for the world we now face and the one we want to create, is investing in our future. It’s easy to do (plasticity). It leads to large scale change (technical). We can all do it (number). I=tpn . In these times of crises, let’s sit with our fear and our anger. Let’s recognise it for what it is. Let’s choose how we respond. And let’s give thanks and gratitude that we live in times where others are able to provide at least some form of safety net to encourage us to face down our fears and change our behaviours. And then let’s nudge ourselves onwards like we’ve never nudged before.
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